What happened to the folks in saffron robes* from the 1980s?
A percentage of today's wellness providers are not well at all. In fact, it appears that it's just the opposite, at least if you're not a QAnon fan. Let's set some context first.
Back in the big-shouldered Eighties, you might recall the much-heralded "New Age" movement which was in part strongly influenced by the book The Aquarian Conspiracy. I bought multiple copies, for it intrigued me and spoke to me directly, as it did many. A great many. I was all of 27 at the time, fresh out of the Army after some horrific circumstances.
The kind which can make us vulnerable, malleable and persuadable.
Not long after reading this book I began bouncing between the US and Australia, just becoming aware of my own spirituality. I had a nifty little truck/camper named Martha and took my time between visits Down Under to drive to San Diego to explore the American West. There, I found a community of people fully steeped in this movement.
Along with plenty of fakirs, charlatans, abusers, predators, all of it, precisely the motley mix you'd expect when too many gullible people with too much time and money get together around a Great Cause. Especially when said Great Cause promises to allow we Special People to feel oh-so-superior to those Other Guys Who Don't Get It.
If you heard a distinct wink-wink-nudge-nudge around "get it," you heard right.
It didn't last, of course, for too many reasons. However plenty of those folks morphed, rather much like communities of hippies now in their eighties are still living in communes or trailer parks deep in the Rockies and Sierras. One in particular, a lively, funny female preacher whose quips kept her congregation in stitches, moved into angry evangelical Christianity. She found a home in the Deep South where her extreme views took further root.
Far right evangelical Christianity is one place where a good number of the saffron robe crowd folks evolved, having found no more quick answers in the New Age Movement than they will anywhere else. A good number of Height-Ashbury flowers-in-their-hair Free Love types who ended up in the John Birch society in much the same way.
Black and white thinking doesn't survive well in the question. Good spiritual teachings, no matter the guru, help us live in the question, for ultimately there are no real hard answers in life. Just more, and often harder, questions.
Before I evolved out of the somewhat giddy-for-me machinations of the New Age movement, I was as insultingly self-righteous as any of those who have dubbed themselves "enlightened" today. People in today's so-called wellness industry who have decided that they alone have a pipeline to the Almighty, that is, just as those who charged $150 a pop to channel anything from Jesus Christ to dolphins to your bleeding ulcer ("I hurt," NO SHIT SHERLOCK) in the 1980s. We get it, we thought, the rest of the hoi polloi don't.
Deeply insecure humans can have a desperate need to feel special, most especially superior, to one another. Such movements have a distressingly vampiric way of feeding on precisely that need.
There are today religious cults which fervently believe that they can live forever. That's is likely an outgrowth of a group of folks who, when I met them in 1985, told me that they were not going to age. Or die. We have to wonder how all that worked out for them, forty years hence. My guess is that had they been successful we'd have heard about it. Our species has always had such people, such beliefs, such cults. It's part of how we cope. But that was before social media's influence.
The danger of self-described gurus is evident in all the stories from Waco to the suicides of people waiting to be carried off into space. I am sorry for them, sorry for their families. Sorry for people now doing serious jail time for actions taken while under the influence, if you will.
We are a gullible lot, especially when faced with a fast-changing world. Forty years on, and armed with the internet and a great deal less education and patience, the Eighties New Age movement has simply morphed to fit the times. The Age of the Influencer has spawned thousands of would-be gurus who are dangerously influential in terrifying ways.
The Guardian writer James Ball sums this new iteration beautifully in an article I found today (he also has a book):
“Alex Jones perfected the grift of selling snake-oil supplements and prepper kit to the libertarian right wing via his conspiracy theory media channels,” Knight says. “But it was Covid that led to the most direct connections between far-right conspiracism and wellness cultures. The measures introduced to curb the pandemic were viewed as attacks on individual sovereignty, which is the core value of both the wellness and libertarian/‘alt-right’ conspiracy communities.”
The problem is, it rarely stops with libertarians. While they may not recognise it, those drawn in from the left are increasingly ending up in the same place as their rightwing counterparts. (author bolded)
An important line of demarcation can blur when we acknowledge that the Bigs, like Pharma, Government, Medicine et. al. do not have our best interests at heart if those get in the way of big profits. I write about these myself. I read authors who point out the problems with the Bigs so that you and I can think critically. However.
Pointing out issues with systemic abuses and bad corporate or government behavior isn't the same as believing that babies are being served up in the basements of DC pizza parlors. I can see how people can fall down the rabbit hole. It doesn't take too many steps to the left or right of reason before we lose ours.
All human societies likely suffer some abuses, some more than others. In our clumsy attempts to govern and self-govern we are bound to make terrible mistakes and blindly let others make worse ones at our expense. While capitalism is cruel, I have yet to see a different system proven to be better. That said, democracy demands critical thinking and educated populations, two skill sets we have lost, which absolutely supports the spread of these kinds of influences.
There are several people very close to me who slid down the rabbit hole, people whose intellect and savvy I deeply respected. I mourn their loss just as I am sure they consider me the nutjob these days (I no doubt am, but probably for different reasons).
It's so much easier to paint everyone else as a nutcase if they don't agree with you. The Special Few of course get it, not many others do. That makes you part of that Special, Select Army of God which really understands what's going on and everyone else is fast asleep.
Look, I've been guilty of making the same kinds of statements myself, to my deep embarrassment. I've watched people who become born-again Christians display the same arrogance; rather than be humbled by their newly-acquired status, it becomes a status symbol with which to shame others.
You can see the seduction in such thinking if we feel all alone in the world: I'm the only one who can see the danger. I alone can save the world. Lots of Rambo-style movies fed this kind of fantasy, and a lot of very silly-but-damned-dangerous people have tried to live that fantasy. Are still trying.
Ball quotes one of his interviewees as believing that our isolation is part of the problem. I heartily agree; when we are isolated, we are divided. When we are divided we are easy prey for anyone with an agenda. The trick is to keep talking to people whose viewpoints don't align with ours, even if that can sometimes be discomfiting. The gift is that we are heard, and in being heard we are less isolated; in being less isolated we feel more safe. When we feel more safe we are not such easy prey for predators like Alex Jones et.al.
All of us have far more in common than what separates us, but if we are isolated, we lose that connectivity and belonging. That makes us easy prey.
This is going to sound disconnected but stay with me here. My dear friend Melissa, who is very much the New Age type but who has kept her feet solidly on the ground all this time, sent me this quote from William Shatner:
“Last year, I had a life-changing experience at 90 years old. I went to space, after decades of playing an iconic science-fiction character who was exploring the universe. I thought I would experience a deep connection with the immensity around us, a deep call for endless exploration.
"I was absolutely wrong. The strongest feeling, that dominated everything else by far, was the deepest grief that I had ever experienced.
"I understood, in the clearest possible way, that we were living on a tiny oasis of life, surrounded by an immensity of death. I didn’t see infinite possibilities of worlds to explore, of adventures to have, or living creatures to connect with. I saw the deepest darkness I could have ever imagined, contrasting so starkly with the welcoming warmth of our nurturing home planet.
"This was an immensely powerful awakening for me. It filled me with sadness. I realized that we had spent decades, if not centuries, being obsessed with looking away, with looking outside. I did my share in popularizing the idea that space was the final frontier. But I had to get to space to understand that Earth is and will stay our only home. And that we have been ravaging it, relentlessly, making it uninhabitable."
To all of us Star Trek fans:
Space. The final frontier.
It's not, however. Our species could explore to the ends of all galaxies to the ends of all time and not find the answers we so desperately seek. They lie within, they always have, as does all blame and credit for our conditions, the conditions of our earth, the messes we make for ourselves and others.
All the great religions teach this. That which we call God is within us, yet that truth seems too terrifying in its simplicity and profundity. The answers to whatever questions we ask are inside us, the only real frontier, by which we better understand ourselves, the world and all the other living things in it. Once I understand myself to be sacred, I must understand that all life is indeed valuable as I am. That's a gift and in that gift lies freedom.
Maybe, ultimately, that really is the answer. Hell if I know. It makes more sense than lizard people.
Conspiracy theories are just another arm of the octopus of hate, which allows us to "other" marginalized people, "other" anyone whose way of being in some way offends or threatens us, justify war and harm humans, animals, plants, our earth out of fear and greed.
Too many of us crawl into the caves of convenient conspiracies looking for a Bad Guy, when the only Bad Guy is us. Pogo was right.
We are so much more isolated now than in the Eighties. Social media has effectively divided us. We are being conquered by our inner demons as well as those who are adept at manipulating us to drive their agendas. It's not just what isolation does to society, it's what it does to the individual. We are desperate for connection. That's why kids join gangs. It's what causes desperate people to commit school shootings. It's why we're willing to become thugs for a cause that makes no sense whatsoever, if only it will assuage our sense of terrible lonelines.
The only way out of this, to my mind, is to talk to each other, care about each other irrespective of differences, and not succumb to sick symphonies of fear. There's nothing well about this kind of wellness at all, just a well of sorrow, suspicion and hate. That's no way forward in a world which needs our best selves.
We're better than this. Now instead of checking social media, I'm going to go talk with my neighbors. That's the kind of wellness that can heal.
*the term "saffron robe" isn't intended to be derisive. Many New Age folks felt strong ties with monks. There were pictures aplenty showing everyone in bright yellow robes and tambourines laughing and happy and strewing flowers once everyone was appropriately transformed. While that didn't allow much room for others to choose otherwise, it was nice idea in principle.
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